Water Follies of Wyoming

Proposed West Fork Dam illuminates outdated water development processes in the state

Few places actually feel like the “wild west” portrayed in movies, but much of Wyoming still does with wide-open spaces, and frontier communities. The first time I walked into the Buckhorn Bar in downtown Laramie, the bullet-ridden mirror and hodgepodge of taxidermy neck mounts felt so authentic, I wasn’t sure if the red stain on the off-camber pool table was blood, or just red wine. When you drive north out of Laramie the only movement in the endless plains is either roaming pronghorn herds, or oil pumpjacks bobbing up and down.

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South Pass, Wyoming — the transition area between the Wind River Mountains and the Red Desert

One summer, I was lucky enough to work for Anna, a great friend of mine and PhD student from the University of Wyoming studying mule deer migration in the Red Desert and Upper Green River Basin. Each day, we’d follow the small digital arrow on our GPS unit across remote swaths of rabbitbrush and lupine, through howling winds, always seeing elk and cows, but never any people. One afternoon, we spotted a wolf through the binoculars and spent an hour watching it lie in the shade of a tree; king of the forest.

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Medicine Bow Peak outside of Saratoga, Wyoming

As the source of the Colorado, Columbia, and Missouri Rivers; Wyoming is the ultimate headwaters state. Incredible rivers flow from the Wind River Range, with more natural glacial lakes than I've seen anywhere else in the West. The fishing is incredible, and some of those clear-blue streams are like heaven-on-earth.

But, before too much time passes since I have lived in Wyoming, I need to articulate my observations about culture, about resilience— and how that relates to water development and state institutions.

I first came to Wyoming to study water in the Colorado River Basin. Home to the headwaters of the Green River, the largest tributary to the Colorado, it felt like the perfect community to continue my education, and connect with the landscape producing snowpack keeping farms in California irrigated. Water in the Green and Colorado River Basins travels from Wyoming all the way to Mexico. Each of the seven Colorado River Basin states, Mexico, and the federal government work together to ensure the hardworking river system goes where humans need it, through a series of dams and reservoirs.

Above all else, my time in Wyoming made me realize how much landscape drives culture — and therefore how resources like water in the desert are viewed.

“If anything is endemic to Wyoming it is wind. This big room of space is swept out daily, leaving a bone yard of fossils, agates, and carcasses in every stage of decay. Though it was water that initially shaped the state, wind is the meticulous gardener, raising dust and pruning the sage.” — Gretel Ehrlich

Culture in Wyoming is, of course, vastly different from say, California. People who are born and raised in Wyoming are inherently independent, and many grew up working the land in harsh weather. Being from the state is a point of pride, outsides are more than welcome, but have to earn their respect to be considered local— something I appreciate about Wyoming. You’ll hear the phrase, “I’d rather be dead in Wyoming than alive in Colorado,” a lighthearted response to soft Coloradans whose state pride has a tendency to be over-the-top. Populations in Wyoming remain only around 570,000, even as the populations in neighboring western states rise exponentially. Therefore, open space and solitude are easy to come by.

Agriculture is almost impossible in most regions of the state because of a short growing season and saline soils, so cattle ranching and working in the oil and gas industry are some of the largest contributors to the economy. However, a reliance on so few industries is not financially consistent, especially since Wyoming is one of the only states with no state income tax. As coal has become less economically feasible in recent years, the state is struggling to keep up with infrastructure improvements, education, and other public work’s needs. Agriculture and oil and gas notoriously influence environmental regulations and other policies, negatively impacting natural resources and rural communities.

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Warren Bridge BLM Campsites near Daniel, Wyoming

The summer I was working for Anna in the Upper Green River Basin, we often stayed at a beautiful BLM campsite along the Green River. A few weeks in, cows began coming down to the river to drink, quickly trampling riverside vegetation and leaving cow patties everywhere. Needless to say, I wasn’t too upset when my excitable young dog chased them out of camp.

Despite being a headwaters state with a small human population, Wyoming is still extremely arid. Ranchers, the oil and gas industry, and small towns all need reliable sources of water, so, as in every western state, reservoirs are common. In the Upper Green River Basin, dams and diversions are ample. Fontenelle Dam and Reservoir is the first major impoundment on the Green River, but Big Sandy, New Fork, Eden, Boulder Lake, Meeks Cabin, and High Savory Dams also regulate tributaries of the Green and Yampa Rivers in Wyoming alone.

Fontenelle was originally built with the intent that it would supplement agriculture, yet, to this day, it is primarily used for extraction industries and storage before it flows into Flaming Gorge Reservoir, one of the largest dams in the Colorado River system on the Wyoming/Utah border. Building reservoirs that don’t really serve a purpose is certainly not unique to Wyoming, every state is guilty of over-the-top projects that probably should not have been built in the first place. Nowadays, the federal government has pretty much stopped funding huge water reclamation projects, and most states don’t have the money or political will to build more. However, Wyoming’s massive oil and gas revenues put the state in a unique position when it comes to water development.

The Wyoming Water Development Commission is the entity charged with developing water resources, and receives millions of dollars each year — I can’t be sure of their “rainy-day” fund, but I have heard it’s over 80 million. The Commission was developed in 1975, to “promote optimal development of the state’s human, industrial, mineral, agricultural, water and recreational resources.” The ten-person committee is appointed by the governor, and represents the four state water divisions, and the Wind River Reservation.

The past Governor, Matt Mead, proposed a “ten in ten” initiative — that is, building ten water projects in a decade. Water projects are obscenely expensive and require extensive permits from multiple state and federal agencies, such as the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Interior — plus years of planning studies by engineers. So, forgive me when I say the idea seems a little arbitrary. To be fair, some of the projects involve improving existing infrastructure, which is practical, but again, not cheap. One Agricultural Economics professor at the University of Wyoming I talked to proposed that the Commission should use some of the money to conserve groundwater in the portion of the state overlying the rapidly-depleting Ogallala Aquifer, rather than develop more surface water in scarcely populated areas.

The first semester of my master’s program at the University of Wyoming, I began working with a small Colorado River advocacy group out of Moab, Utah, which got me connected to the small number of conservationists across the Colorado Plateau and sparked a huge sense of purpose. Towards the end of 2017, I got wind of a water project Wyoming wants to build in the Little Snake River Basin — the major tributary to the Yampa River, which is the major tributary to the Green and contributes about 60% of the sediment through Dinosaur National Monument. The 80-million-dollar project is supposedly only going to support around 60 people. It is called the “West Fork” Dam, and would impound the West Fork of Battle Creek and Haggerty Creek, a tributary of the Little Snake, flooding about 5 miles of headwater streams.

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Yampa and Little Snake Watersheds — Source: American Rivers.

I spoke to a handful of people to learn more about the proposal, and the more I discovered, the more obscene the project that would impound 10,000 acre-foot became. After tracking down planning documents — over 400 pages — I learned the project had been in the works since at least 2015. Millions had already gone into planning, but what really felt shady was the lack of public process. Funds supporting this could be going to scarce education or conservation needs, but instead they were going to private consultants who have made a living tweaking numbers to make absurd water projects seem economically feasible.

When discussing potential recreational benefits, the report suggests how many thousands of visitors a newly created reservoir would receive based off a 2005 national study — completely irrelevant to the middle-of-nowhere Wyoming. Further, there is no way over 70 million dollars of profit would come from revenue created from additional water storage. One insider told me the extra water in an average year would amount to “one week of late season hay” for less than 2,000 acres— that is buck-wild, y’all.

Environmental impacts aside, (there are plenty, such as the project being built right below a proposed Superfund site where an old copper mine leaches contaminants in the river; to impacting one of the only habitats where wild strains of Colorado cutthroat are found), the process is infuriating. The major political backer for the project is a Wyoming state senator, and simultaneously, the Natural Resource Coordinator for the Little Snake Conservation District. By having the state fund his project, the Conservation District could directly benefit by selling more water to farmers. I’m no lawyer — but the situation screams conflict of interest.

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The Little Snake River in Colorado — Photo by Cody Perry, Rig to Flip

In February of 2018, the project was embedded in the Water Development Omnibus Bill in the legislative session. We worked to create and distribute a fact sheet for the entire state Senate so they could understand what an unnecessary project it was. Of no surprise, the project wasn’t fully funded, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s dead. Proponents of the project were furious that people who are simply ignorant to their water needs could strike down their project — one legislator even proclaimed: “It used to be that when we had an omnibus water bill hit the floor, somebody got shot if they amended it.”

Since the project would theoretically benefit farmers in Colorado, I was curious about their stance. During the February 2017 Legislative Session, I called up one of the chair-people of the Yampa-White Basin Roundtable, and found that Wyoming had yet to approach the state about helping out with construction costs, even though politicians were saying otherwise. Currently, Wyoming has begun those conversations and Colorado has “agreed to the process,” but isn’t promising any money. In short, it doesn’t make sense economically — the opportunity cost is through-the-roof. Imagine how much 80 million would do for public schools? One Republican senator admitted that there was not an economic analysis of whether this was this best use of state funds.

Even more, the Army Corps requires a beneficial use to be associated with each permitted project, and with such pitiful numbers, it is unlikely that it would meet the requirements. Why keep wasting money on something that isn’t even eligible for the required permits?

Wyoming has a long and proud history of shaping water law and setting an example for other western states. In the late 1880s, Wyoming’s Elwood Mead was first to propose that all water users must have a permit with the State Engineers Office, whom could then approve or deny the project. Second, he set up the four water districts based on major watersheds, displaying great foresight into calculating what water actually exists, and creating a framework for accountability. Overall, he saw water speculation as dangerous and wasteful — and that is exactly what the West Fork project in the Little Snake River Basin is.

The point of this story boils down to how Wyoming should know better. Water belongs to everyone in the state — it is even explicitly in the Wyoming Constitution. Not enough water exists, or frankly money, for this cloak-and-dagger approach to spending money earmarked for water development. Moving forward, Wyoming should learn from this, and propose projects that can be vetted by more than ten people. Citizen groups around the state should be able to voice their needs and suggestions, before millions of dollars are sunk into pie-in-the-sky, outdated, and entitled water projects.

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Fishing the New Fork River in the Upper Green River Basin

Pragmatic folks of Wyoming, I urge you to become involved in the future of water development. But go beyond state boundaries, and examine how your watersheds contribute to the rest of the West, and think about your neighbors in Utah, and Arizona. Those people, and river ecosystems which we are a part of, have just as much right to water as you do. I’m certainly not saying all water development is bad — I’m just saying it should be taken much more seriously, and consider far more options than the elite who control purse-strings have taken into account. We no longer live in the wild west with unlimited resources; even in Wyoming. There are too many people and not enough water to spend exorbitant amounts on projects with so little value to society as a whole. The next time you’re up on the New Fork River, or the Green River chucking flies at trout, think about how lucky you are to live in Wyoming. The rest of the Colorado River Basin will continue to look to the headwaters state as a prime example of management and collaboration. If I learned anything living in Wyoming, it is that Wyoming is the only state with enough grit, gumption, and integrity to do the right thing.

Written by

Desert river-rat, writer, and river advocate passionate about establishing grassroots, collaborative solutions to western water issues. All views my own.

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